I recently finished my first book of 2022. The title was, Shula: The Coach of the NFL’s Greatest Generation By Mark Ribowsky. I will share five takeaways from this book that I believe are helpful in educating our mindset and habits for growth.
Takeaway #1: I am not a fan of audiobooks
Let’s be clear about one thing, LISTENING to an audiobook is not READING. Can you add any audiobooks that you have consumed to your yearly “reading” list to make yourself feel better? If a weight lifter uses performance-enhancing drugs, their retort is that they still have to put in the work. Is listening doing the work?
Whether a bodybuilder is natural or modified, they still have to do the work of actually lifting the weight. So, is turning the page what separates reading from listening as a qualitative endeavor?
One of the best books I have read on organizational framework, Organizational Physics by Lex Sisney, was a title I listened to before I read it. The audiobook gave me a great overview and then reading the book helped me to better grasp and dive into the concepts. In this way, I have found that audiobooks are a good method for me to sift through the piles of books that I would like to read and supplement my reading.
*If you would like to hear more from Lex, you can watch or listen to him on episode 42 of my podcast.
Takeaway #2: Learning team leadership from coaches
As I share in my latest book, several years ago I picked up my first coach's biography and have been hooked since. Winning teams require individuals to understand, as Phil Jackson, former coach of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O'Neal, says, “Good teams become great ones when the members trust each other enough to surrender the Me for the We.” (emphasis added)
So, how then does a coach, and their coaching staff, work to get these well-paid individuals to buy into the idea that if they work as a team they will go further than they ever could as solo acts?
If I could extract nuggets here and there, perhaps I could apply these principles to my own development as a person in a position of leadership trying to influence my team towards doing it right, doing it efficiently, and doing it excellently.
Don Shula coached the perfect season in 1972, putting a cherry on top with a Super Bowl win over the Washington Redskins. This is a feat that has only been contested once in the last five decades by Bill Bellicheck and Tom Brady in 2007. That perfect regular season New England Patriots team lost to “The Helmet Catch” of the almost sacked Eli Manning and the fatefully assisted grasp of David Tyree.
This and a few other of Shula’s accomplishments inspired me to read about this celebrated coach:
Shula describes coaching as, “I think what coaching is all about, is taking players and analyzing there ability, put them in a position where they can excel within the framework of the team winning.” Before you can help your players to find their fit, you must first clarify the framework so that you can build consistency and establish accountability among the team members.
Takeaway #3: No matter how successful you are, there is always a BUT…
When Rex Ryan was celebrated as the new coach of the New York Jets, I remember seeing a press conference in which he prophetically said (to the effect of), “The same things they love you for today, will be the things they hate you for tomorrow.” While Don Shula may be the most accomplished and longest-tenured football coach in NFL history, no matter how successful you are there is always a, “Yeah, but…”
My home team, the Seattle Seahawks, is going through their own turmoil of their first losing season in a decade (2011), there is plenty of scuttlebutt over whether the team should fire their winningest head coach, Pete Carroll. So, this idea of whether a coach has lived out their time of usefulness or if a new system needs to be brought in is of particular note. Shula went to the Super Bowl six times, but he only won the big game two times.
Yet, he also only had two losing seasons in his 33 years of coaching two professional football teams. So, why couldn’t he win the big one [more than twice]? Why did his teams make the playoffs but struggle to win these big games? Did the game pass him up, did he waiver in his values, or were there other factors? I came across this quote, which I think applies to all persons in a position of leadership,
"I've been accused of being a conservative, 'grind'em-out' kind of coach, because that was the style of my teams in 1972-73, but I point out that when I was at Baltimore, and Johnny Unitas was my quarterback, we used to have a wide-open, explosive passing attack," Shula said in 1985. "And when I came down to Miami, I didn't try to jam the Unitas style down the throat of Bob Griese, who was a different kind of quarterback, nor did I try to force the Griese style on Marino when he came along."
As a corollary, my father-in-law was a pastor for all of his professional life. He led large, what many would say “successful” organizations, and many small, even tiny, congregations. While there are many differences between church and state, there are also many similarities. Leadership is leadership. He noted, “You are the same pastor each time, just sometimes it hits differently.” His perspective was that his role was to be faithful to do the work, and he worked hard, but that you weren’t always in control of the outcome, especially where people are involved.
I hear Don Shula expressing something similar, that his core values were the same throughout the 70s, 80s, and into the 90s, but he adapted his approach to the situations and staff. Shula has also said, “Success isn’t forever and failure isn’t fatal.” Listening to this book, I didn’t find that there was a standout nugget from the text. I was hoping he might answer the “buts” and yet it seems he was overall content with himself and his accomplishments. I mean this in a good way, because there are plenty of coaches that I have read who are miserable even in their high achievements.
Takeaway #4: How do we rate coaches (leadership)?
Being named as a head coach, does not mean that you will be given the reins by athletes or upper management. Coach, as a reflection of leadership, is something you earn. You have to earn the respect of the players if you want their buy-in to your system. You have to earn the respect of upper management if you want their pay-out when you add resources to your team.
In businesses our internal metrics our the year end financials, did we win this year would equate to increasing revenue and solidifying profits. Not everyone sees that, so it’s difficult to judge unless you are publicly traded. So, what are the external measures of a successful leader in the skilled trades? I would love to hear your input on this, but for now we will turn our thoughts back to the character at hand, Don Shula, and how we rate coaches (leaders) in the National Football League (NFL).
How do we rate coaches and how does Don Shula stack up?
How do we rate business leaders and how do you stack up?
Takeaway #5: Mindset and habits for growth
This quote from Don Shula, is about the best I have heard as it relates to work, “Work isnt work unless you would rather be doing something else.” Rather than striving (a word I detest) for that perfect unicorn job (the one you love) so that you won’t have to work a day in your life (as the ridiculous quote goes). When you make the committment to pursue something, work your butt off to be the best you can be. Coaching is about making others better by helping them to see that making the team better will help them achieve their goals.
Over the holiday break, on a fun trip with family and close friends, we watched several segments of The Harder Way. This show is about Penny Hardaway coaching his alma mater Memphis. On the show, former NBA star Mike Miller says (from what I recall), “The difference between good and great is small. The difference between great and elite is huge.” By all the notes listed, Shula is clearly elite. Even Michael Jordan says,
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Shula had a “my way or the highway” approach, which appealed to many of his standout players early in his career. But he also learned to adapt as time went on so that he could get the best out of his teams. Early in his career, owner Joe Robbie had called for Don to come over in a manner that Don did not appreciate. Shula responded, “You ever talk to me like that again, I’ll kick your ass.” According to Sport Illustrated reporter Michael Rosenberg, “The two were never friends, and the relationship could be icy, but it worked because neither thought they had to be friends.”
I’ve long held that we don’t have to like each other to work with each other, but we do have to trust that 1) we both want what is best for the team, and 2) that we will each do our best to do our own jobs (DYOJO). With those two elements of trust in place, we can lead peaceful and productive teams. We don’t need a fantasy job, unicorn friendships, and all of our employees don’t have to be ninjas.
Don said that he was always learning and as noted previously, he did his best to adapt to the talent on his teams. While I don’t feel that I learned any enlightening nugget from this audiobook, it is also true that not everything needs to be a Mount Sinai moment. Often it is equally important to apply my heart to what I observe and learn a lesson from what I see. Your vision and values may not need a major overhaul, but you should always be challenging your mindset and habits if you want to grow.
I leave you with a closing thought from Mr. Shula, “You take on what's right in front of you. You want to do the best you can with the opportunities that you have.”
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